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Operation Conservation was a British Army attempt to ambush a large Provisional IRA (IRA) unit along the Dorsey Enclosure, between Cullyhannamarker and Silverbridge, in south Armagh, during the early days of May 1990. The operation was uncovered and thwarted by the IRA South Armagh Brigade.

British plan

The British Army, in the hope of luring a large IRA active service unit into attacking an entrenched Light Infantry unit, deployed its troops around the route between Cullyhanna and Silverbridge. A heavy machine gun ambush had taken place on another Light Infantry patrol on 28 April near the same area. More than 180 rounds were fired and a soldier was wounded in the leg.

The main position was to be surrounded and watched by 16 concealed sections belonging to the Scots Guard regiment. The goal was to surprise and destroy any IRA unit attempting to penetrate the area.

The action

The troops were inserted into the zone on the first hours of 3 May.The IRA watched these movements and was able to spot several of the hidden observation posts (OPs). Eventually, they decided to attack one of the British positions at Slatequarry, near Cullyhanna, which was in the more vulnerable situation.

On the very first hours of 6 May, the guards' post began to receive heavy fire from an IRA unit emplaced on the slope of a hill nearby. The OP was attacked with two 7.62 mm GPMGs and a Heckler & Koch G3 rifle; the latter used to cover the machine gun team's retreat towards a road, where a vehicle was waiting to pick them up. A bomb was planted between the OP and the road, to prevent any attempt to give chase. The IRA members fired their machine guns from a rocky terrain next to an abandoned building. The shooting lasted some 90 seconds, and a total of 316 rounds were expended by the two sides. The section's leader, Lance Sergeant Graham Stewart was hit and died of wounds the following day.


The sudden counter-ambush disrupted the British operation, and the officer in charge aborted it. After the incident, another British senior officer concluded that a skilful gun team was operating at that time near Cullyhanna. Indeed, on 20 September, another soldier was hit and wounded there during a heavy machine gun attack on a 1st Cheshire Regiment patrol at Drumalt. Author Toby Harnden suggests that the IRA show of force proved again that they could dispute the ground to the troops everywhere in south Armagh due to its better knowledge of the terrain and use of rugged soil to conceal positions.


  1. O'Brien, page 207
  2. Harnden, pp. 394-395
  3. "As soon as Lance Sargeant Stewart was killed, we pulled out all covert and overt troops and abandoned the operation." Harnden, page 395
  4. "Even before the single-shot sniping attacks began to take their toll, the capacity of IRA gun teams to engage troops on equal terms had become a major headache for the Army." Harnden, page 394
  5. "They can observe, they can pick the time, they can pick the place, they can pick the weapons and they know the terrain." Harnden, pp. 393-394
  6. "Once again, the enemy used dead ground to their advantage." Harnden, page 395


  • Harnden, Toby: Bandit Country: The IRA & South Armagh, Coronet books, 2000. ISBN 0340717378
  • O'Brien, Brendan: The Long War: The IRA and Sinn Féin, Syracuse University Press, 1999. ISBN 0815605978

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